Anxiety is an unpleasant mental state experienced by millions of men, women, and children worldwide. Though it is generally harmless, it can lead to more severe complications. Generally, symptoms are very minor, such as nervous pacing, difficulty sleeping, or the appearance of a nervous tick. However, in more serious cases, anxiety can lead to heart palpitations, nausea and vomiting, dizziness and headaches, even stroke and cardiac arrest. Fortunately, anxiety can be controlled by means of breathing exercises, meditation or yoga, and other simple relaxation techniques.
One of the most difficult challenges parents face is helping their children grow and learn to handle the motions of life effectively and without developing problems that may follow them into adulthood. As much as parents want their children’s childhood to be a time of happiness and joy, it is also a time to realize there will be times when children experience emotions, such as sadness, frustration, anger and anxiety.
Anxiety related disorders are one of the most common psychological disorders in the United States and they are not restricted to only adults. No parent expects their child to go through life without experiencing some negative feelings. However, many children experience childhood anxiety and their symptoms are not recognized or treated.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a natural human reaction that serves as a biological function. It is a type of alarm system that is activated when you perceive a threat or danger. Anxiety is basically a type of stress that can be experienced in a variety of ways, both physically and emotionally. Everyone experiences a feeling of anxiety from time to time. It mainly relates to worrying about what might happen, feeling like you are in danger or fearful of something going wrong.
The feelings of anxiety can range from a sense of uneasiness to a having a panic attack, depending the situation and the person. For example, you may experience anxiety just before giving a presentation at work. Children also feel anxiety in certain situations, such as switching schools or preparing for an important test. These types of experiences can trigger feelings of anxiety because they cause you to focus on the “what ifs.”
Some anxiety almost motivates, because it helps you to stay focused, alert and prepared to do your best. However, when a child experiences excessive feelings of anxiety or it happens a lot, it can become overwhelming and begin to interfere with their ability to enjoy activities that used to be enjoyed. At this point, anxiety becomes an anxiety disorder.
Childhood Anxiety Disorders
The term anxiety disorders, is actually a term that describes several childhood anxiety related illnesses, including social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
There are several different types of anxiety disorders and each has its own set of symptoms. However, they all share one common symptom: intense and prolonged anxiety that is out of proportion to the current situation. Meaning, the anxiety is due to a situation or event where there may be no obvious cause for the anxiety.
Anxiety Disorders and Their Symptoms
The symptoms of a childhood anxiety disorder can suddenly come on or they can build gradually. One of the most common symptoms of childhood anxiety is a sudden sense of doom and/or fears that seems to come out of nowhere. Children with anxiety problems may not even know what is causing the worries, fears, sensations or emotions they experience. Some of the common types of childhood anxiety disorders and their symptoms include:
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder is an intense fear of being in social situations. This may include speaking in front of their class, starting a conversation or performing for others. Children with social anxiety disorder often sit by themselves in group settings, sit in the back of the class and stay in the background. This type of behavior is often mistaken for shyness, so no professional advice is usually considered. Social anxiety disorder typically peaks during adolescence and if not treated, it may continue into adulthood, which may increase the risk of depression and/or substance abuse.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
Separation anxiety disorder typically occurs in children aged four and over. It is normal for most children to feel some form of separation anxiety and it is completely normal for them to feel frightened or anxious when a parent is out of view. However, children with this type of anxiety disorder become excessively nervous when they are separated from primary caregivers, parents or away from their home. These children have an excessive desire to be with their parents and are extremely miserable when they are away from them. Symptoms of separation anxiety often include:
- Not wanting to go to school
- Avoiding sleepovers
- Does not want to go anywhere alone
- Continually following their parents around the house
- Wants someone to stay with them at bedtime or will attempt to sleep with parents
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is one of the most common anxiety disorders. Children with generalized anxiety disorder worry excessively about several things, such as the health and/or safety of family members, school and/or the future. With GAD children always think of the worst that can happen in any situation. It typically occurs in children during the ages of six to eleven. Some of the anxiety symptoms of GAD may include:
- Muscle tension
- Stomach aches
- Missing school
- Avoiding social activities
- A desire to be perfect and will often do things over and over, until they are happy with the results
Panic disorders typically occur after the age of 20; however, they can also occur during adolescence. If a child experiences more than one panic attack and spends the following weeks or months worrying about having another panic attack, they may have a panic disorder. A panic attack is the primary symptom of a panic disorder. Symptoms of a panic attack are extremely fearful and often include:
- Uncontrollable trembling
- Sudden surge of extreme fear that occurs for no apparent reason
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pains
- Hot flashes
- Fear of going crazy and/or dying
- Feelings of extreme danger
- A feeling as though things are not real
A phobia is an illogical fear of a person, place or thing, such as dogs, heights or certain situations. It is common for children to have a fear of certain things, such as animals; however, as the child ages, these fears usually go away. Children with a phobia are extremely fearful of encountering their phobia. For example, a child with a dog phobia may avoid going outside because they fear encountering a dog. Some of the most common child phobias may include:
- Being in the dark
- Thunder and lightning
There is no exact known cause for anxiety symptoms in children, but several things are thought to play a role, including genetics, an overactive fight or flight response, learned behavior and/or stressful life circumstances. Children who have a family member with an anxiety disorder often have a greater chance of developing one as well, which may be related to genes that affect the brain chemistry. It is important to note that not every child with a family member who has an anxiety disorder will develop anxiety symptoms.
There are things that happen in children’s lives that may set the stage for an anxiety disorder in childhood or later in adulthood. Children with a history of abuse, a loss, such as the death of a parent and major life transitions are common triggers.